Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Case for the Eels: Showing Off In Your Fiction

First off, I just wanted to let everyone know that PEN Center USA is accepting applications for their Emerging Voices Fellowship program. This program nurtures budding writers by providing free classes, one-on-one mentors, and weekly meetings with professional writers, agents, and publishers. While the description on the PEN website mentions that they focus on applicants from "underserved" communities, I know from personal experience that this term is broad and applies to more than economic need or minority status.

Now, onto showing off! Yesterday, Scott described the evolution of his opening chapter and detailed some of his reasons for making the changes he made. To summarize briefly, he decided to start the story in the middle of the action and spread the backstory throughout the book or not use it at all. This decision included cutting out a section of prose that described the seasonal harvesting of eels.

In reading Scott's sections, many of our readers commented on how much they liked that eel section. It truly is beautiful, but I can understand why Scott would choose to delete it. He wanted a focused, driving story, and that approach works.

But, another aspect of art that I think doesn't get mentioned as much as it should is the idea that showing off in your work, flaunting your stuff, putting an astronaut on the moon, is an acceptable choice too. So often, we writers are told to be humble, to hide our gifts under the table until that rare occasion when someone honors us by offering to read our work. I think this approach is okay, but it's not the only approach out there. Plenty of art exists for the sake of showing off. Think of grand palaces, or statues so large that they become emblems of a country. True, these things might be overdone, but I think they also manage to serve another function: They celebrate life.

One of the reasons I love Tolstoy is because he wrote epic stories. Anna Karenina is no attempt to be humble. Tolstoy delves into the mind of young and old women, young and old men, lovers, the dying, the rich, the poor, even the clever hunting dogs. For me, seeing a man attempting to capture so much of nature and humanity in a single work is absolutely inspiring, in fact, that most of the time I don't care about writing anything original. I want only to be as good as Tolstoy.

Seeing artists attempt to do great things, simply for the sake of doing great things, reconnects us to living sensation. It brings out our sense of adventure and discovery. It reminds us to be passionate and unreasonable, even when so many other forces are trying to get us to be just the opposite. Although I fought it for a long time, I now believe that the essence of engaging art is beauty. And, beauty isn't really something that can be contained or focused. I think beauty overflows; it impresses us by its unwillingness to compromise. A beautiful passage of prose is beautiful on its own whether or not is contributes to the main line of the story. Because of that, a reader may really appreciate it simply because it is beautiful.

Scott, I'm not trying to get you to change your mind. I admire you for the decision you made. But, should you (or anyone else) decide to keep in a piece of prose simply because it is breathtaking, I personally think that is a valid decision.


  1. Davin, what a beautiful perspective! I'm not sure if you read my Lenses post, but I think this can apply to what I say about seeing through different filters and lenses. Many times I think we writers are caught up in doing everything correctly and efficiently. I know that I have been for quite a long time. If we would stop for a moment and realize that what we're doing IS art, we might see that including artistic elements just for the sake of including artistic elements is not a bad thing!

    Poetry is showing off. If anything, it is the celebration of words strung together to show images larger than life, exploding emotions, and engaging our senses in a way that only language can. I know fiction can do this, as well...

    If we have the courage to do it even if it doesn't "move the story forward".

    Scott, I think your eels section is lovely and gorgeously written. I also know that in a book like yours, there is lots of room to add some art that shows off, so I hope you let other sections like that in your book shine through. I see why you made the decision you did, though. Beginnings often demand more forward, efficient scenes for the story.

  2. This is a wonderful post, Davin. I am one of those who was in awe of Scott's eels, and yet I also understand and in some ways agree with his decisions. But you make some good points here. The passages we write that immerses a reader in our world and takes their breath away might not necessarily advance the story, but it might allow them to celebrate our skill in writing. We need that sometimes. We need to let our muse become Da Vinci for a moment, and then once we've gotten it out of our system, we can go back to advancing the story. Nice job.

  3. I liked the eels, too, but knowing Scott the rest of the material he kept is probably every bit as good as what was cut.

    Think of it like preparing a meal: it may be excellent cooking, but you have to limit the portion sizes to what can be reasonably consumed.

    When I have the chance to read Horatio from beginning to end, I wonder if I will still miss the eels when I am finished?

  4. Thanks for the link to the program; it's always interesting to see what the various opportunities for writers are.

    I agree with you that we ought to show off in our fiction -- sometimes -- but I've come to think that a lot needs to be done in a particular work of fiction before "showing off" can be either useful or successful. Just something for writers to keep in mind.

    Thank you for another great post, Davin!

  5. Aww, Davin, such a lovely post!

    One of the great things about coming to the Literary Lab is the underlying message that there is no one-perfect-absolutely-right-way to do things.

    (and I really like the title: A Case for the Eels. Sounds like literary fiction.......)


  6. Ah, this is a keeper. I think I'll print it for the binder.

    What is so difficult is finding that right fit, that perfect balance. I think we have to trust our instincts and hope the final product is reflective of our vision.

  7. Davin, thanks for implying that my eels passage was breathtaking. I like that. So does my immense ego.

    I have three comments. Maybe four; we'll see when we get there.

    1. In truth, all of my writing is showing off, or at least I try to write at the very outside edge of my abilities as often as I can. It's all about stretching myself and boosting my ego.

    2. To follow up to Rick's comment, I cut loads of what I considered beautiful, gorgeous prose from this novel in the last two revisions. I can't remember any of those passages now, so clearly the story didn't need them. It's all about the needs of the story.

    3. I really like the eels scene. I may put it elsewhere in the novel. I just don't want to lead the story off with that. It's all about engaging the reader.

    4. "beauty overflows; it impresses us by its unwillingness to compromise" is brilliantly said. This is why I read literary fiction. It's all about beauty.

  8. Great post and so very true. I love to read beautiful writing, but there is truth that sometimes you need to kill those darlings to make the story flow better or keep the reader's attention.

  9. Great post, and I agree with it. But I do think the desire to keep a passage in for beauty's sake needs to be tempered by a sincere attempt to consider the reader's perspective. In other words, I would keep a passage if I think it will evoke a sufficient reaction in the reader (Wow, that was beautiful! or Wow, I never really thought about that before but that's interesting) to justify its inclusion despite not furthering the story, but not because I wrote that and I think it's great and don't want to part with it. I guess the difference is whether I can look at it critically and still think others will believe it's as great as I do. (External feedback helps, of course.) But beauty-for-beauty's sake retention needs a higher bar than passages that also further the story in some way -- there needs to be a genuine "wow" factor.

  10. I'm glad Mr. Bailey cut the eels. Sure, add them later, if you must, but don't start with a tale of eels!

    Take my advice; I'm unpublished.

  11. Davin - Thanks for the info on the emerging voices program...sounds interesting. I might qualify with the income thing...after all, I am a teacher! UGH!

    Brilliant usual!

  12. Michelle, I think it can definitely apply to these different lenses. I don't think I expressed that directly, but the two are related.

    Eric, well put. You and Michelle and several other here mention being able to see both sides of the coin on this topic. I think that's important. In the end, it is up to the writer to decide.

    Rick, what about buffets? :P Okay, okay, I suppose moderation is a good thing. Sometimes.

    Weronika, the PEN program really has a lot of strong points. It would require at least temporarily relocating to LA, but it offers many opportunities.

    Shelley, you're definitely right about there being no-right-way. If that is the point that we get across with our blog, I have a feeling all three of us will be incredibly satisfied with what we've done.

    Tess, really good point about trusting our intuition. I think, for me, that's one of the biggest skills I have picked up as a writer. It comes slowly for me. Each year, I feel like I get a little bit better at hearing that nonsensical thing that just does things because they "feel" right.

    Scott, breathtaking: yes. I agree that all of our writing is an attempt at beauty. I didn't know if I wanted to get into that, but it's an important point. I also wanted to say that all stories were equally meaningless, which is related, but I figured that would take some explaining.

  13. B.J., it's all about balance, isn't it? Balance based on intuition, faced with the impossibility of ever knowing if anything will really work.

    Jabez, I like what you said about the "Wow" factor. I think that's also what I meant when I used the term breathtaking. I think this sort of flaunting needs to be the exception to the rule, rather than the standard, perhaps.

    Justus, Hmmm, I don't think eels start with tails. They start with heads unless they are swimming backwards.

    Traci, if you're really interesting in the PEN thing, email me. I'm happy to answer any questions you might have on it. I was a fellow in 2008 and got a lot out of it. Are you in LA?

  14. Davin: John Cage used to say, "Nothing is accomplished by composing a piece of music. Nothing is accomplished by performing a piece of music. Nothing is accomplished by listening to a piece of music." He meant that in a positive way.

    I think that (and I'm just now making this rule up) the stronger the storyline and the characters in a novel, the easier it is to put in moments that are beautiful for their own sake, because the story will more easily bear the weight of such passages.

    Which means, I hazard to guess, that we can do both: we can keep the story moving forward but pause now and again and make poetry of our tales. The lucky few of us can make poetry while moving the story forward. Note that I do not necessarily equate "moving the story forward" with "having a strong plot." That's another discussion entirely wherein Tolstoy and D.H. Lawrence battle it out, likely to a tie.


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